Matthew Broderick has worked with the best of them: Marlon Brando, Dustin Hoffman, Sean Connery, Denzel Washington, Morgan Freeman, Michelle Pfeiffer, Jason Robards.

And monitor lizards.In his latest movie, "The Freshman," Broderick not only got a rare opportunity to trade lines with acting legend Brando, he got the even rarer opportunity to clown around with a 5-foot-long Southeast Asian water monitor, one of the biggest (and stupidest) reptiles in the world.

What a career, huh?

Actually, Broderick has enjoyed one of the more noteworthy postgraduate brat-pack careers.

Pre-pack, too.

Before he was past adolescence, Broderick's New York stage resume included Neil Simon ("Brighton Beach Memoirs," "Biloxi Blues"), Horton Foote ("On Valentine's Day") and Harvey Fierstein ("Torch Song Trilogy").

He has appeared in the film versions of most of those plays, as well as "WarGames," "Ladyhawke," "Ferris Bueller's Day Off," "Glory" and "Family Business," among others.

Some great stuff. Some mediocre stuff, too. But none of it as determinedly offbeat as "The Freshman."

Writer-director Andrew Bergman, who has contributed to the scripts of "Blazing Saddles" and "The In-Laws," serves up a deadpan collection of unexpected ingredients.

In his first major role in 10 years, Brando does a dry-as-dust, perfect parody of his most famous character, "The Godfather's" Don Vito Corleone.

The plot revolves around some ghastly, illegal scheme to feed endangered Komodo dragon steaks (the monitors subbing for the genuinely protected dragons) to rich gourmets. If that is not weird enough for you, how about Bert Parks singing Bob Dylan, with Was (Not Was) as his backup band?

With his boyish innocence and talent for double takes, Broderick is well cast as Clark Kellogg, a New York University film student who finds himself enmeshed in this madness the moment he sets foot in Grand Central Station. A smart but naive Vermont kid (another running gag: His New York acquaintances always think he is from somewhere else), Clark finds himself, at various turns, ripped off, employed by and about to be married to various members of the unfathomable Sabatini family.

Patriarch Carmine (Brando) offers Clark a highly paid delivery job (that lizard), after his nephew Victor Ray (Bruno Kirby) steals all of Clark's possessions. Carmine's saucy daughter Tina (Penelope Ann Miller) starts planning their wedding the day after meeting Clark.

Meanwhile, Clark's perception that his new benefactor is someone he had better not refuse is fueled by an impossibly pompous film teacher (Paul Benedict of TV's "The Jeffersons") obsessed with analyzing "The Godfather" movies.

Actually, Carmine's manipulation of Clark is balanced by paternalistic affection. That aspect of the relationship is one of the few things that stands between the fatherless film student and abject panic.

" `The Freshman' is about a lot of things, but, for me, it is primarily about a young guy who comes into the big city from out of town," Broderick said. "He's trying to get his independence, and he ends up getting it in a totally different way than he thought he would. But he gets it, nonetheless, and he sort of becomes a man.

"He also gets a new father. His father has passed away, and he doesn't get along with his stepfather. In a way, he finds a new family for himself."

On that count, life mimicked art a bit during production. Brando opened himself up completely to the younger actors, both in front of and behind the cameras.

"I remember the first day we shot, he told me and Bruno we should think of his trailer as our trailer, just come in whenever we wanted," Broderick said. "So we'd go in there a lot. He had this nice CD player. We would listen to music and he'd talk. It was a pleasure.

"And he was really concerned about all of us. He'd keep asking Bruno about me. `Is the kid getting enough sleep? He looks tired; he's not getting enough sleep.' "

Brando's outgoing, comforting demeanor was in marked contrast to his reputation as a reclusive, perfectionist mind-game player. It also seemed out of sync with the widely publicized display of anger that accompanied the completion of photography on "The Freshman" last fall. Brando called a press conference to denounce the movie as "a stinker," claim that he hated working on it and threaten never to work again.

Although he later retracted those statements and dubbed the picture "screamingly funny" with "moments of high comedy that will be remembered for decades to come," his initial outburst shocked the co-stars, with whom he seemed to have had such a good time.

"I felt bad when I first heard about it," Broderick recalled. "Everybody was upset. In a way, it seemed like something was up. He'd just thrown a party for the whole crew and cast with his own money, had jugglers and magicians and food on the set. So you'd have to be crazy to then think all of that stuff he said was true. I didn't take it to heart."

A few hours after the infamous press conference, Broderick's instincts were proven correct. "(Marlon) called me that night and said. `You have to know that none of that was true; I loved making the picture.' He hadn't seen any of the movie when he made those (negative) statements. That was all part of a fight with people at the studio. I don't know the exact circumstances.

"Still, it was embarrassing," Broderick said. "You'd get on an airplane, and a stewardess would say, `I hear it's a stinker,' or something like that."

Regardless of the aftermath, working with America's greatest living actor was a dream come true.

"Of course, it was a complete thrill," Broderick said. "Ever since I was a little kid, that was a fantasy. He's, like, the father of modern acting. And he was wonderful, wonderful, wonderful to work with. He makes it so easy. It's like playing soccer with somebody very good. All the passes come right to you, and you play better than you normally would."

The son of New York actor James Broderick, he has been judging performances since childhood. He knows a natural when he sees one - an invaluable ability when your co-stars run around on all fours.

"I particularly liked the lizards' performance," Broderick said. "The guy who controlled them, Jules Sylvester, did one of the chimps on another movie I made, `Project X' (the redoubtable Sylvester also handled spiders for the current "Arachnophobia"). He always had a lot of snakes around him, even then, and the lizards are sort of snakelike. Not as creepy, but the same kind of minds."

For the film, Broderick had to wrestle disturbingly large water monitors in and out of cars and chase them through fields and shopping malls.

"Every scene with the lizard, basically, was its call," he said. "There was no telling it to stay or sit or come or go or any of those things. It didn't understand anything."

A particularly docile lizard did scenes that required manhandling. Wilder stunt reptiles did the chase sequences.

"They used a lot of lizards," Broderick said, impressed. "The ones that run are mean. They take them out and they just run like (crazy); into walls, anything."

The occasional reptile job notwithstanding, Broderick thrives on formidable acting challenges. "Mostly, I'm concerned with trying to do it well," he said about working with the likes of Brando or his "Family Business" co-stars, Dustin Hoffman and Sean Connery. He tries to suppress any feelings of intimidation.

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He's worked with

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